Talking Vintage with Iris Apfel, Norma Kamali and Stephanie Solomon

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Lauren Parker, Iris Apfel, Norma Kamali, Stephanie Solomon. Photo: Jenna Bascom

Coinciding with VINTAGE@Intermezzo, a section where retailers and consumers could shop vintage apparel and accessories from 20 vintage dealers, Accessories Magazine held a star-studded panel to discuss “The Value of Vintage.”

At the standing-room-only event, Lauren Parker, Editor-in-Chief of Accessories Magazine, interviewed the legendary award winning designer Norma Kamali, the one and only Iris Apfel, and Stephanie Solomon, a fashion industry veteran who served as Fashion Director of Bloomingdale’s for 30 years and most recently as VP/Fashion Director of Lord & Taylor. She asked them to weigh in on vintage both professionally and personally, but the lively discussion went far beyond that and included discussions about millennials, social media, the future of fashion design.

It was a packed house with a number of seasoned fashion pros (Marylou Luther, Nicole Fischelis, Jeffrey Schwager) in the audience. It was obvious that the big draws were Iris (who pretty much stole the show, as she tells it like it is, and had everyone in stitches), and Norma, both of whom are revered for being iconic, one of kind rule breakers. And as it turns out, the idea of being one of a kind, the driving force behind vintage, was a phrase that was used throughout the approximately hour-long discussion. Read below for excerpts from the panel.

Accessories Magazine’s Lauren Parker basks in the fashion glory of Iris Apfel. Photo: Jill Hammer

Before Lauren began, she cracked everyone up saying that when she went over to Iris’s booth at VINTAGE@Intermezzo to say ‘Hi’ on Sunday, Iris wasn’t there because she out was shopping the other booths! For the record, Iris reported that she purchased a fabulous Victorian coat and a jacket from Comme des Garcons. Lauren then warmed up the panel by asking everyone what was their favorite accessory piece.

Stephanie Solomon: “A bracelet that I fell into while shopping in some crazy place in Milan. It was a 1940’s gold bracelet. I had no money at the time but I spent everything I had on this bracelet…still my favorite and most coveted piece..And my aunt’s wedding ring I still wear. I believe jewelry has energy and passes on good luck to people.”

Norma Kamali: “The cat’s eye glasses I’m wearing. I found them 40 years ago and I have been making them in different materials ever since.”

Iris Apfel: “I have so much vintage I guess it’s all a favorite! Would somebody please define vintage? I just purchased a jacket from Comme des Garcons at the show and was told it was from 2016. Does that mean anything that was made even a week ago is vintage? Vintage used to be an elegant way of saying ‘old clothes’ but for me, it seems that the term can be used to define something that is unusual, not run of the mill, and one of a kind, regardless of the age. Age doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. Just look at me!”

SS: “Iris, you used a term that resonates very strongly right now: one of a kind. I just read a business analysis that said customers are more than 60% more likely now to look for one of a kind items now than they were one year ago. That, in and of itself is a trend.”

LP: “Many customers wear the hottest trends each season because they know exactly what’s ‘in’ and therefore what is fashion ‘approved.’ Wearing vintage requires more creativity. Do you think some customers don’t have the confidence to buy vintage, and are unsure how to wear it?”

Iris Apfel. Photo: Jenna Bascom

Iris: “People have to get to know who they are in order to carry off something. Just because it’s a trend doesn’t mean it will look good on everybody. The worst faux pas is looking in the mirror and seeing somebody else. So many of the current fashions look ghastly on the people. You have to know who you are physically, mentally, spiritually and what you can carry off and feel comfortable with.”

LP: “Do you mix eras when you wear vintage? How do you wear one era and not look like you’re wearing a costume?”

SS: “Mixing is the only way to go but if you see something vintage and relate to it, and feel it’s something you have to have, you can’t go wrong. What’s great is that vintage has a history behind it but you need to know your body, your style, and what will be attractive to the world and to yourself.”

LP: “Norma, I read on your website you are very influenced by the 40’s. Was that the only era that’s influenced you? 

NK: “I’ll tell you the history of this. When I was 14–16 years old I had no money but I realized I could find one of kind things in vintage stores that were just becoming underground popular. And I could go to S.Klein and buy a dress, take off the decorations, add vintage, and I had something that was me. In the later 60’s when I was in London, Antiquarius was a focal point for me. By the 70’s everyone dressed the way they wanted and would kill themselves if they looked like anyone else. And nobody had a stylist. That creativity was an expression of who you were.”

Norma Kamali. Photo: Jenna Bascom

“The 70’s allowed everyone to be fully expressive and be creative with clothing. And because vintage was in such great numbers, 20’s, 30’s 40’s, 50’s vintage, I used to buy big big trash bags full of it and I sold it in my store too. From the 70’s to now, vintage has gone through this kind of a movement (and Norma moved her arms up and down to illustrate). We really need more expressive individuals who look amazing. However, we live in a time when everybody is looking forward or looking down into their devices. Looking backwards in history takes a lot of interest. It’s not a characteristic of a millennial to want to do that. In order for vintage to have a life today, I think we need to say that it will be okay for people to not dress like every other person  on Instagram.”

“And where are all the expressive, gorgeous individualists with style on Instagram wearing vintage? Where are you? There are not enough of you. There are plenty of pretty girls with pretty dresses that all look the same. But I’m putting a call out. Where are all of you on Instagram who have style and know how to make vintage rock and look fabulous? (This was met with rounds of applause!) So, do it, so that looking forward, you can use Instagram by taking vintage and mixing it together to make it look modern and today. It’s critical that that expression exists.”

LP: And everyone better hashtag it #NORMASAYS!

IA: “What has happened since the 70’s that made everyone so uptight about getting dressed?”

NK: “I think a lot happened. Prior to women going to the workplace, there was a transition from the Mad Men time of cone bras, girdles, stockings, garter belts (you want to kill yourself just thinking about it) to not wearing any underwear at all. That was my favorite and I can’t say I am wearing any underwear at all! (laughs from the audience). I think women working changed it up. Looking expressive or individual was not something we were able to do in the workplace so there was a need to look like men, wear a power suit, As the generations go by, girls want to look more and more like each other; the same poses, the same dresses.”

Stephanie Solomon. Photo: Jenna Bascom.

SS: “Isn’t that the purpose of Instagram? I want to be YOU! I want YOUR life! I want to buy YOUR earrings. It’s a ploy to get you to buy my life. And that is anti-creative. We need to celebrate those women who don’t copy my earrings, handbags, because it may not look good on you. Find yourself. In the 70’s we didn’t have that. We didn’t have all these influences. We were encouraged to be as creative as we could be and we were rebelling against our parents. You didn’t wear what your mom wore. We wanted to be the opposite.”

NK: “The individual exists. Being an individual means you have courage, your self-esteem is pretty intact and you have a sense of self that is key to who you are. Women have it sometimes, and sometimes we don’t. We’re hormonal human beings who feel good about ourselves at times, and and sometimes we don’t. But the idea of expressing yourself and creating beauty is something the individual can always do. And that individual can survive through different eras and make a name for herself.. And men can do it too.”

LP: “I want to talk a little about retail. So Stephanie, tell us about Cameron Silver’s Decades Vintage pop-up store within Lord & Taylor’s Dress Address department.”

SS: “The pop up store was a total unmitigated success. I was shocked! It’s something you don’t often see true vintage ready-to-wear and that’s what it was with Decades. People just gravitated toward it and prices were normal, they were not so inexpensive that it was a giveaway. There is an undercurrent starting to happen. The numbers on websites like The RealReal consignment shop (www.realreal.com) are pretty impressive so I think millennials are beginning to appreciate the value of vintage and it resonated at Lord &Taylor very strongly.”

“The other section [Lord & Taylor has] is a vintage jewelry case which we’ve had since 2005, and it’s doing very well. Retailers should investigate this more closely. Of course, the problem with vintage is you can’t reorder. You have to replenish. But there are trends in vintage. We all know Gucci is the bomb right now, but if you see vintage Gucci, it’s happening there as well. It trickles down from ready to wear to vintage.”

LP: “Iris, what’s selling at your VINTAGE@Intermezzo booth?”

IA: “We’ve sold a lot of statement necklaces. People are beginning to like bold jewelry and not just discreet itsy bitsy things. If you’re going to wear jewelry, it should make a statement. Nothing is as transformative for an outfit as knockout jewelry. You can take a little black dress and go from work to cocktails to a big-time gala by simply changing accessories. With good, architectural, basic pieces you can completely change your look by changing your accessories. You can make dozens of outfits with very little. It helps people be more creative as well.”

LP: “Pop culture. Anything you guys look to for inspiration? Everyone should try to check out ‘Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture’ at the Museum of Arts and Design, which features boho/rebellious fashions from the 60s and 70s.” 

NK: “This is such a fantastically disruptive time that looking for inspiration in places or through vintage is not what I think we should be thinking about now. I did the sleeping bag coat in the early 70’s and I still sell it. I did sweats in the late 70’s and I still sell sweats. I did a jersey collection of 8 dresses and I was wearing a lot of vintage in the 70’s and I said to myself that I wanted these dresses to be vintage of the future. And actually, the top I’m wearing is a short version of one of the dresses. And this top can be worn 8 to 12 different ways and I still sell it. So sometimes vintage is timeless. In fact, really good vintage is timeless and I think you’re seeing an example of that with Iris. There are things that will always look good and they are decades old. The sleeping bag coat was recently on the cover of a magazine and I did it for Lady Gaga’s upcoming show. So, vintage that is great for you is timeless and an investment you make for yourself forever. I think that’s an important thing to think about. If you love something, it will last forever.”

SS: “With vintage, it’s all about the appreciation of quality. There’s something so valuable about that. It’s a counterbalance to fast fashion and it emerges when you realize the value of workmanship, craftsmanship and creativity and all the things that make good, classic fashion that lasts in your wardrobe. It’s a nonexistent idea right now. It’s a counter argument to fast fashion.”

LP: “One key point is that vintage is sustainable. It’s recyclable fashion. It’s not doing any damage and retailers that want to get into this should use this as a selling point.”

At the end, the discussion was opened up to the audience. One woman who identified herself as a retailer with a clothing store in Charleston that has been around since 1893 said that she had been “a devotee of Norma’s” for decades and has over 300 pieces. “I wouldn’t give one of them away. Every time you went into the wholesale business, I was the first one there. Because It stands the test of time and I could name the designers who stand the test of time on ONE hand and still have fingers left over. The technology of your work, your life, your personal life, is truly an inspiration.”

IA: “Let’s face it; there are not too many real designers out there. And most of them don’t get the credit they deserve. A lot of the designers today are media freaks. They are in and they are out and they don’t have much talent. It seems to me if you’re a real designer you have to know how to conceive of something. You have to know how to draw it, sketch it, cut it, drape it, sew it, and these people design by committee.”

NK: “It is true that the industry has changed tremendously and I think a lot has to do with technology, and I am sort of mixed up kind of person because I’ve been around a long time but there’s a part of me that also thinks like millennials and I’m there. I know that kids are not trained in pattern making; they are not trained in what Iris is talking about. The training for that and the desire to know that is no longer a requirement because of the way clothes are produced and designed nowadays. So one of the things I’ve thought about was, if pattern making and draping are not really used any more or very rarely, then, does that mean the sewing machine is no longer going to exist? So I’ve created a collection that I haven’t actually delivered or sold yet but it’s made entirely without a sewing machine, without a needle or thread.” (This met with wild applause from the audience)

“And the beauty of that is there will be a time when there will be no sewing machines in any country because the millennials will all be communicating this way (pointing to her iPhone) and they’ll say. Why am I sitting at this sewing machine? I want to be taking a selfie of myself at McDonalds instead. And so the irony of the millennials and the disruption they’ve ceased, is really another door opening to a new kind of creativity and it is disruptive. So I had to challenge myself to see how creative I could be if I didn’t use a sewing machine and I didn’t use the tools that are part of my DNA. I mean really, if you take patternmaking, draping, sewing, and sketching away, you’ve just dismantled, taken my identity away. And so in the quest for never losing my identity, I tried another way and it was very exciting and very fulfilling. And so I think there will be original design even if the mechanics change. But you are right. The desire for people to have the skill set, to do things the way they were isn’t there anymore and the training isn’t there anymore.”

This In the Markets guest post was written by Marilyn Kirschner, Editor in Chief of The Look On Line. It is reprinted with permission and you can find the original post at Lookonline.com. 

Marilyn Kirschner wearing an Iris Apfel necklace with Iris at VINTAGE@Intermezzo. Photo: Marilyn Kirschner

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